One of the great translational issues with the Bible is that English sometimes has a restricted vocabulary. We don’t have enough words for love: Greek has four or possibly five quite distinct shades of meaning with different words, Hebrew has two, English lumps ’em all together into one word, sometimes confusing romance with commitment or group-feel in the process. That’s not a problem of the Bible, it’s a weakness in English. Similarly, we have only one word “you.” Greek has at least four–you for one person, another (“y’all”) for a group. Hebrew has six notionally and four in common use–one man, one woman, two men, two women, two or more people including at least one male, three or more people all female! And that leads us to easy misunderstandings, at times. Again, not a Bible problem, an English problem. We need more pronouns, friends. A cash bounty for whoever invents winsome ones today!
Does this matter? Yep. Today’s reading from I Corinthians “you are God’s temple” goes on to talk about the penalty for destroying that temple. In my childhood, I heard a lot of lessons about this, and they were always–100% of them–wrong. Because they assumed the “you” here is singular. “You, Steve, are God’s temple”–that’s how things would start off. “And so if you destroy that temple, if you smoke or drink alcohol or do drugs or any of the other things I’m about to tell you are forbidden, like dancing or growing your hair too long…well, it says right here that God will destroy you because you disrespect and destroy his temple. Do you want God to destroy you? No, I didn’t think so.” The result was that I was afraid to tick God off–and that, later on, when the people around me weren’t falling over dead in the street from doing what I was told would lead to a swift and certain judgment, I started to seriously doubt everything else I’d been taught as well.
Now, in all fairness, I do think it’s important to give kids firm boundaries. And no, children, don’t smoke or do drugs or have premarital sex or drink until you’re 21–I can give you 5000 good reasons not to do these things at all, or not to do them prematurely. What I can’t and won’t do is tell you that this passage says God will smite you for disrespecting His temple by dipping snuff or drinking a beer. Because the “you” here is plural, not singular. It’s saying that “y’all,” the Church and not the individual, are the temple of God and that anyone who destroys the Church from inside is like a cancer gnawing away at that temple. This isn’t an individual warning about drinking, it’s a group ethic about getting along, about not always having to have the last word, about not sowing discord and distrust. It’s about schism and unity, not Marlboros and bourbon and rock music. (Rock music, by the way, was one of the things that was going to lead to immediate divine retribution–today, most of the churches akin to the one I grew up in play rock music on Sunday mornings. Hmmm.)
Look, the Church often needs correction and reform. Martin Luther was right on that front, Thomas Cranmer and the Wesleys and the Oxford fathers and Vatican II and Verna Dozier were all right on that front. Often enough, our own parishes need reform: we get all comfy cozy with our ways of doing things and wind up brittle and unresponsive to God’s fresh new winds, unwelcoming to new insights and newcomers and more attuned to ministry in the world of 1957 than the present reality we actually live in. Reform and correction, great. But breaking the system, tossing out the baby with the bath water, that’s a different thing. Insisting that if I don’t win it’s because y’all are deluded and demonic and wrong, wrong, wrong, that’s a different thing. That, friends, is when we start courting divine retribution: when we turn Church into a winner-take-all bloodsport, and insisting that our way is the only way. Now, snuff out that Marlboro, it’s bad for you…